I had twins when I was 40 and some months after they were born I had a few checks and my gynaecologist discovered that my womb lining was thinning to such a degree he said it looked post-menopausal.
He wasn’t sure though, and one of the diagnostic questions he asked was, “are you unusually irritable?” I replied I was irritable all the time, but I had three children under three, and had gone back to full-time work after three months, working long hours.
It was hard to detach the symptoms from everything else that was going on – and I think that might be something that happens to quite a lot of people, but I did start having hot flushes after a year which was much more recognisably menopause-related. My hair also started to thin, which concerned me, so I asked my gynaecologist what to do.
He recommended that I not take HRT, which I didn’t want to anyway, because I have a family history of breast cancer – and also said that there was no magic bullet. If you have HRT and you stop taking it then you’ll get your symptoms back again. So I decided to try to manage all the menopausal effects as best I could by myself.
Menopause can be debilitating, and result in all sorts of symptoms, such as depression, but for me it was mainly characterised by hot flushes and increasingly irregular periods, some of which were extremely heavy. They started coming every couple of weeks and I would think “I’ve just been on a three-week period, when is it going to end? And then I wouldn’t get one again for three months. My menstrual cycle became very very erratic before tailing off and my last period was nearly a decade ago.”
At work I had to manage both as best I could. Balancing the practicalities of massive blood loss around a working life wasn't easy and I made sure I was well equipped with pads and would try and endure it if it were a particularly bad day. The blood loss wasn’t painful as much as it was copious and alarming, and I had talked to my gynaecologist who had mentioned it, so knowing that it could become very erratic stopped me getting too worried. And if things got truly terrible then I had the option to take a day off work.
In total my menopause lasted for about 15 years, which is something I hesitate to tell people as it sounds quite scary. It was a long time to have hot flushes though, which lasted at least a decade. However, they weren’t bad all the time and there were definite peaks during this time toward the beginning and middle, with all the symptoms tailing off in the latter years.
To cope with them, I wore layers, cardigans or zip up tops: things that could be taken on and off rapidly if I got unbearably hot. Certain materials were out, such as silk, which shows every drop of moisture. Cotton was good though, as it didn’t show so much, as were blouses with camouflaging details such as ruffles or patterns.
I would also carry a little folding fan from a Chinese shop in my bag, because sometimes it was just so unbearable that I’d have to fan myself – and a handkerchief so that if I were on a train or in a meeting or a public place and I could see beads of sweat breaking out I could dab myself quickly.
I didn’t think at the time that I “must be positive about the menopause”, but I did want to do things naturally if I had a choice. Menopause is part of life and aging and I wasn’t prepared to make a huge secret of it. To be honest, I was quite interested to see what it was going to be like.
If anyone made a joke or commented I would just say “Oh, I am just having a hot flush” and laugh and normalise it. Why can’t women speak about what they are going through? It’s going to happen to all women at some point and we should be glad to have reached that age and still be alive.
I grew up in Sweden and Denmark so my background is Scandinavian and culturally these are countries that are very pragmatic about bodily things, so I didn’t think it was anything I particularly needed to hide or make a big deal out of.
Personally, I always tried to share information if I heard people talking about it to help them. There are so many stories – and experiences – of menopause out there, and I wanted to contribute an experience where it wasn’t so bad, if long! I never discussed it with my managers as I didn’t need time off in the end, but if the topic had come up I would have. I’d definitely recommend talking to a sympathetic person if your symptoms are debilitating – menopause varies so much from woman to woman.
And if there’s a healthcare team at the office, go and see someone there and get as much information as you can. There may be types of HRT that can ease certain symptoms. I’m not against medication at all; risks and benefits should be weighed and I think whatever ensures a successful outcome and suits the person is a good thing.
And that includes being open and asking for help and information – which is also key to reducing stigma and ‘normalising’ this life transition at work. At the company I work for we’re organising events around the menopause so that it’s not a “secret” any more and people can find information. We're aiming for such events to raise awareness for both men and women - men need to know what their partners will go through. There is work to be done on the andropause (the ‘male menopause’) too!